40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal.
As noted previously, a big motive in the Watergate cover-up had nothing to do with the actual burglary, but rather with the previous activities of the White House Plumbers Unit. Their first operation, “Hunt/Liddy Special Project 1,” was part of the Nixon Administration’s response to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by one of its contributors, Daniel Ellsberg, Ph.D. (Ellsberg has appeared in this blog before, in our discussion of the ambiguity aversion effect, better known as the Ellsberg paradox.)
Ellsberg, a former military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation, was one of 36 members of the Vietnam Study Task Force, established by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to produce an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War.” The report “United States—Vietnam Relations: 1945-1967,” was so secret that it was kept from President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. The final report contained 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents published in 47 volumes. It was classified “Top Secret — Sensitive,” meaning that the reason for its classification was that the publication of the study would be embarrassing. The print run was 15 copies.
In October 1969, Ellsberg, who had grown to oppose the Vietnam War, along with Anthony Russo, photocopied the study and showed it to Henry Kissinger, William Fulbright, George McGovern, and others. None was interested. It was not until February 1971 that Ellsberg first discussed the report with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. In March, Ellsberg gave Sheehan 43 of the 47 volumes, and the Times began publishing excerpts from the study starting in June 1971. At that time, the nickname “Pentagon Papers” first came into use.
The reaction was much the same as that which followed the WikiLeaks disclosure of State Department cables. While numerous claims of damage to US military and intelligence operations gained headlines, the reality was that the Papers talked about events that had happened years before. Nixon Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold later called the Papers an example of "massive overclassification" with "no trace of a threat to the national security.”
The Papers effectively became public knowledge when Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) entered 4,100 pages from the report in the Congressional Record. Richard Nixon originally wasn’t interested in prosecuting Ellsberg or the Times, because the study only embarrassed the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, but Henry Kissinger argued that this would set a negative precedent, and Ellsberg and Russo were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.
In order to come up with more evidence to discredit Ellsberg, the Plumbers received their first mission, which took place on September 3, 1971. It was a burglary operation, targeting the office of Daniel Ellsberg's Los Angeles psychiatrist, Lewis J. Fielding. The break-in team reported they couldn’t find Ellsberg’s file, but Fielding himself later said that not only was the Ellsberg file in his office, but he had also found it on the floor the morning after the burglary. Someone had clearly gone through it.
John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, reported to Nixon, saying (on tape), “We had one little operation. It’s been aborted out in Los Angeles which, I think, is better that you don’t know about.” Later, when the whole story came, out, the case against Ellsberg turned into a mistrial because of government misconduct, and all charges were dismissed.
What’s fascinating to me in all this is how unsuccessful the Plumbers Unit actually was. Far from achieving its goal of discrediting Ellsberg, the burglary (and related wiretapping) actually contributed to the dismissal of the case.
You can download the complete Pentagon Papers (including the parts Ellsberg didn't release) from the US National Archives here.
For more on the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, stay tuned.